Although some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare wrote portions of The Tempest at an earlier stage in his career, most literary historians assign the entire play a composition date of 1610 or 1611. And while Shakespeare may have had a hand in The Two Noble Kinsman (written a decade or so after The Tempest and assigned to dual authorship), The Tempest is customarily identified as the Bard's last stage piece. These marginal issues aside, The Tempest is the fourth, final, and the finest of Shakespeare's great and/or late romances. Along with Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, The Tempest belongs to the genre of Elizabethan romance plays. It combines elements of tragedy (Prospero's revenge) with those of romantic comedy (the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand), and like one of Shakespeare's problem plays, Measure for Measure, it poses deeper questions that are not completely resolved at the end. The romance genre is distinguished by the inclusion (and synthesis) of these tragic, comic, and problematical ingredients and further marked by a happy ending (usually concluding with a masque or dance) in which all, or most, of the characters are brought into harmony.
No reading of The Tempest can do it justice: Shakespeare's tale of Prospero's Island is inherently theatrical, unfolding in a series of spectacles that involve exotic, supra-human, and sometimes invisible characters that the audience can see but other characters cannot. The play was composed by Shakespeare as a multi-sensory theater experience, with sound, and especially music, used to complement the sights of the play, and all of it interwoven by the author with lyrical textual passages that overflow with exotic images, trifling sounds, and a palpable lushness.
The richness of The Tempest as theater is matched by the extraordinary thematic complexity of its text. Recognizing that all of the themes and accompanying figurative strands of the play cannot be discussed here, the play's topical highlights can still be approached by first noting the salience of two themes that arise from the very theatricality of the play: the opposition between reality and illusion and the tandem subject of the theater itself. The play challenges our senses and is self-consciously a performance orchestrated by Shakespeare's effigy in the master illusionist Prospero. There are, in addition, numerous interpenetrating polarities in the play, most notably between nature and civilization or Art. These thematic strands come together at multiple points of intersection. Nevertheless, from one angle on the text, The Tempest asks a single question, one that Shakespeare had posed in many and divers of his other plays: What is a human being? (or, in Elizabethan terms: What is man?)
Summary of the Play
Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been living on a primitive island with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Miranda, for the past 12 years. His dukedom had been usurped by his own brother, Antonio, whom Prospero had entrusted to manage the affairs of government while he was concentrating on his study of the liberal arts. With the support of Alonso, the King of Naples, Antonio conspired against his brother to become the new Duke of Milan. Prospero and his three-year-old daughter were put on “a rotten carcass of a butt” without a sail. Gonzalo, a member of the king’s council, took pity on them, and stocked the leaky vessel with food, fresh water, clothing, and Prospero’s books. Providence has now brought his enemies to the shore of the island, and Prospero must act quickly.
The action begins with a tempestuous storm at sea. Afraid for their lives, Alonso and Gonzalo urge the Boatswain to do all he can to save the ship, but he rudely orders the royal party to stay in their cabins and “trouble us not.” They are finally convinced to go below and pray for mercy.
Ariel, an airy spirit, raised the tempest just as he was instructed by Prospero, his master, informing Prospero that all except the mariners plunged into the sea. Ariel reports that he has left the ship safely docked in the harbor with the mariners aboard. The rest of the passengers, with garments unblemished, have been dispersed around the island. Ariel then lures Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, onto the island with his songs, informing him of his father’s supposed death by drowning. The young prince is led past Prospero’s cave where he meets Miranda, and they fall in love. To keep Ferdinand from winning his prize (Miranda) too quickly and easily, Prospero uses his magic to force Ferdinand to yield to the indignity of stacking logs.
Elsewhere on the island, Ariel, with the help of Prospero’s magic, puts Alonso and Gonzalo to sleep. While they sleep Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo and take over the throne. Just as they draw their swords, Ariel awakens Gonzalo and he, in turn, rouses the king. The conspirators claim that they heard wild animals and drew their swords. The king readily accepts their excuse.
Caliban enters, cursing his master, Prospero, for enslaving him. Trinculo, the king’s jester, appears, hiding under Caliban’s cloak to escape a rainstorm. Stephano approaches them, thinking it is a monster with four legs. He finally recognizes Trinculo and is surprised to see him alive. Stephano, having drifted ashore on a barrel of wine, offers Caliban a drink. Unaccustomed to the effects of the alcohol, Caliban kneels to Stephano, taking him for a god who “bears celestial liquor.” Determined that Stephano should be lord of the island, Caliban leads the pair to Prospero’s cave where they plan to murder him.
Prospero magically sets a banquet for the royal party, but Ariel, disguised as a harpy, claps his wings over the table, and it vanishes. Ariel warns the royal party that the storm was a punishment for their foul deeds, and there is no way out except repentance. In another part of the island, Prospero relieves Ferdinand of his duties, telling him he has endured the difficult trial of love and has won Miranda’s hand in marriage. Ariel arranges a masque in honor of the happy couple, but while the masque is in progress, Prospero suddenly remembers Caliban’s plot to kill him, and the masque vanishes. Ariel has lead the conspirators from the filthy-mantled pool to Prospero’s “glistering apparel” hanging on a lime tree in front of his cave. Though Caliban is annoyed, his companions are gleefully sidetracked, stealing the royal robes and forgetting their purpose at hand which is to murder Prospero. Finally, spirits in the shape of dogs are released, and the thieving trio are driven out.
The king and his party are brought to Prospero where he charms them in his magic circle, praising Gonzalo for his kindness, but censuring Alonso for his cruelty and Antonio for his ambition. Removing his magician’s robe, Prospero gives up his magic powers, presenting himself to Alonso as the “wronged Duke of Milan,” and the repentant king immediately restores his dukedom. In a sudden spirit of forgiveness, he pardons all of them for their crimes against him. He then leads Alonso to his cell where Ferdinand and Miranda are making a pretense of playing chess. Alonso is overjoyed to see his son alive.
Ariel enters with the master and boatswain of the ship. To the king’s amazement the ship is undamaged and docked in the harbor. The three conspirators, driven by Ariel, appear in their stolen royal apparel. Caliban calls himself a “thrice-double ass” to have taken Stephano for a god. Prospero invites the king’s entire party to spend the night in his cell where he will give them an account of his last 12 years on the island. In the morning they will return to Naples where they will prepare for the marriage of the betrothed pair, Ferdinand and Miranda.
Prospero rewards Ariel for his services by giving him his freedom and releasing him to the elements. In the epilogue Prospero tells the audience his magic powers are gone, his dukedom has been restored, and he has forgiven his enemies. He now asks them to praise his performance with their applause and, thereby, release him from the illusory world of the island.
Estimated Reading Time
Most Shakespeare plays, written to be viewed by an audience, usually take approximately three hours to perform on the stage. The Tempest is an unusually short play with a performance time of about two hours. It would be possible to read it almost as fast the first time around to get the plot of the story. The Tempest is impressive theater with its magical manipulations, its masque, including spirit-like goddesses, its spirits in the form of dogs, and, perhaps above all, its songs. For this reason an auditory tape of The Tempest, available at most university or county libraries, is an excellent device that can be used to follow along with the text, making the drama more interesting by bringing the characters alive with the use of sound effects. After the initial reading, it should be read more carefully, taking special note of the difficult words and phrases that are glossed at the bottom of most Shakespeare texts. This reading would probably take about 4-5 hours for the entire play, allowing a little less than an hour for each of the five acts. Since the acts of The Tempest vary from one to three scenes each, the length of reading time for each act will, of course, vary. It should be noted that the length of the scenes also varies from 63 to 504 lines.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
When Shakespeare came to write The Tempest in 1610, the recent establishment of English colonies in the New World spurred interest among the dramatist’s contemporaries in the differences among peoples in the two hemispheres. That led to philosophical speculations about human nature itself: Are all people the same, no matter where they live? How much does one’s environment affect one’s behavior and, more importantly, one’s outlook on life? These are the questions that underlie Shakespeare’s last drama, a play that transcends the traditional definitions of tragedy or comedy to encompass elements of both.
The action in The Tempest is set on a remote island where Prospero, the rightful duke of...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Alonso, the king of Naples, is returning from the wedding of his daughter to a foreign prince when his ship is overtaken by a terrible storm. In his company are Duke Antonio of Milan and other gentlemen of the court. As the gale rises in fury and it seems certain the vessel will split and sink, the noble travelers are forced to abandon ship and trust to fortune in the open sea.
The tempest is no chance disturbance of wind and wave. It was raised by a wise magician, Prospero, when the ship sails close to an enchanted island on which he and his lovely daughter, Miranda, are the only human inhabitants. Theirs is a sad and curious history. Prospero is the rightful duke of Milan, but being devoted more to the study of...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
Alonso: king of Naples who has conspired to usurp Prospero’s dukedom
Gonzalo: an old councilor who has shown compassion to Prospero and Miranda
Antonio: Prospero’s brother, the usurping Duke of Milan
Sebastian: Alonso’s brother
Ship–master: master or captain of the ship
Boatswain: the ship’s officer in charge of the crew and the rigging of the sails
Mariners: the ship’s crew who take orders from the Boatswain
The play begins with flashes of lightning, the cracking of thunder, and the urgent shouts of the Ship–master, ordering the Boatswain to mobilize his crew and prevent the ship from...
(The entire section is 853 words.)
Act I, Scene 2, lines 1-188 Summary and Analysis
Prospero: the rightful Duke of Milan whose dukedom has been usurped by his brother, Antonio
Miranda: Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter
The scene is set on an island at the mouth of Prospero’s cave where he and Miranda have been living for the past 12 years. From the shore they have been watching the sinking ship and listening to the heartrending cries of the people on board. Aware that her father has raised the tempest with his magic, Miranda begs him to calm the “wild waters” and end the suffering. Prospero assures her that no harm has been done, and that he has acted solely on her behalf.
He expresses his regret that she is ignorant of...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
Act I, Scene 2, lines 189-320 Summary and Analysis
Ariel: an airy spirit under Prospero’s servitude who performs acts of magic for him
Prospero calls forth his spirit, Ariel, who appears, reporting that he has created the tempest just as he was instructed to do. Moreover, he has created quite a spectacle on board ship. He has caused the lightning and thunder claps while the mighty sea roared and the “bold waves trembled.” Prospero praises him for maintaining his composure in spite of the uproar. Ariel continues, telling him that all except the mariners plunged into the foaming sea in fear and desperation. They have all landed, safe and unblemished, on the shore. He has dispersed them in troops around the island, but...
(The entire section is 980 words.)
Act I, Scene 2, lines 321-374 Summary and Analysis
Caliban: a deformed, subhuman monster; born from the union of the evil witch Sycorax and a devil
With harsh and abusive language, Prospero rudely calls for Caliban, his slave. Caliban, in turn, curses his master and Miranda for subjecting him to the hard labor of carrying logs. Prospero threatens to punish Caliban for his show of disrespect by having urchins or goblins in the form of hedgehogs trouble him all night long with their painful pinches.
Caliban retaliates further by declaring that the island really belongs to him since he has inherited it from his mother, Sycorax. Before Prospero took it from him, Caliban was his own king, but now he has been...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
Act I, Scene 2, lines 375-504 Summary and Analysis
Ferdinand: the son of Alonso, the King of Naples; the prince is later betrothed to Miranda
Ariel, invisible to all except Prospero, appears as a “nymph o’ th’ sea,” playing and singing as he leads Ferdinand, the king’s son, onto the shore of the island. Addressing his invisible attendant spirits, Ariel instructs them to hush the “wild waves” into silence as they imitate the dance. He welcomes Ferdinand onto the island of domestic habitation with its sounds of dogs and roosters in the distance and the graces of music and harmony to soothe his troubled spirit. The music seems like a supernatural presence to Ferdinand who is unable to locate its source. Drawing...
(The entire section is 1466 words.)
Act II, Scene 1, lines 1-184 Summary and Analysis
Adrian and Francisco: lords who accompany Alonso’s royal party
The scene is set on another part of the island, some distance from Prospero’s cell, where Alonso is grieving the supposed loss of his son, Ferdinand. Gonzalo attempts to offer words of comfort by pointing out that losing someone at sea is a common occurrence. It is a miracle that they have survived, considering the odds against them, and he advises Alonso to weigh that comforting thought against his sorrow. In a mood of pensive reflection, Alonso is unable to receive comfort and quietly pleads to be left alone. Insensitive to Alonso’s grief, Sebastian and Antonio begin baiting the king about his...
(The entire section is 1388 words.)
Act II, Scene 1, lines 185-328 Summary and Analysis
Sebastian and Antonio are bantering with Gonzalo when Ariel arrives, playing his somber music. The soothing sound quickly works its magical effects, lulling all except Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio to sleep. Longing for sleep to shut out his depressing thoughts, Alonso soon feels unusually tired. Antonio assures him that they will stand guard, keeping him safe while he takes his rest.
Sebastian and Antonio are puzzled about the “strange drowsiness” that has suddenly come over the royal party. After the king is asleep, Antonio wastes no time trying to persuade Sebastian that this is his opportunity to replace his brother as king on the throne. With Ferdinand dead and Claribel, his sister, living...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)
Act II, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Trinculo: the king’s jester; companion to Stephano
Stephano: the king’s drunken butler; Caliban worships him as lord of the island
Amidst the noise of thunder, Caliban enters, burdened with wood he is carrying for Prospero, who has enslaved him to his service. Cursing Prospero for the way he is being treated, Caliban delivers a long blustering diatribe describing his torment. When Trinculo enters, Caliban mistakes him for another spirit who has been sent by Prospero to torture him further. Trinculo is wandering around, trying to find shelter from the storm that is brewing when he stumbles onto Caliban. Thinking he has run across a fish-like monster, he...
(The entire section is 1263 words.)
Act III, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis
As the scene opens, Ferdinand is carrying logs under the command of Prospero who has enslaved him with his magic. Though he is forced to stack thousands of logs, “sweet thoughts” of Miranda refresh his labors. Miranda enters, pleading with him to take a rest. Unaware of Prospero’s presence, she reasons that her father will be busy with his books for the next three hours, and it would be safe for Ferdinand to sit down for a while. He argues that the sun might set before he finishes his work. In desperation she begs him to relax while she takes over his log-carrying, but he refuses to subject her to such dishonor.
In an aside Prospero speaks of Miranda’s romantic love for Ferdinand as if it...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)
Act III, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis
Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo are now quite drunk, and they are concerned about what they will do when they run out of wine. Stephano announces that they will simply “drink water” when the time comes, but not a minute before. Stephano relishes the attentions from Caliban, his servant-monster, and Trinculo ridicules both of them, reasoning that if their group represents three out of the five people on the island, and the intellect of the other two is as low as theirs, the island government must be on the verge of collapse. Ignoring Trinculo’s remark, Stephano continues to focus his thoughts on Caliban, proclaiming that, when he becomes king, he will either appoint the monster as his lieutenant or his...
(The entire section is 1207 words.)
Act III, Scene 3 Summary and Analysis
The king and his royal party, still searching for Alonso’s son, are completely exhausted. Gonzalo suggests that they sit down to rest since his old aching bones cannot go any farther. Having lost hope that his son is alive, Alonso too has become weary and decides to rest. Antonio and Sebastian quickly catch Alonso’s mood of despair and decide to use it to their advantage. In hushed tones they conspire to murder the king that same night when he and Gonzalo, tired and filled with sorrow, will not be as vigilant as usual.
Prospero appears, invisible, to the tune of “solemn and strange music.” Several of Ariel’s spirits enter with a banquet, and dance around it. They invite the king to partake...
(The entire section is 1257 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1, lines 1-163 Summary and Analysis
Iris: goddess of the rainbow; Juno’s messenger
Ceres: goddess of agriculture
Juno: goddess of the Pantheon; patroness of marriage; wife of Jupiter
Nymphs and Reapers: spirits of the dance
The scene begins with Ferdinand culminating his trial of log-bearing. Prospero assures him that his austere punishment has simply been a trial of his love for Miranda, and he has “stood the test.” As a reward, Prospero presents him with a “rich gift,” his daughter Miranda. He tells Ferdinand that he will soon realize she will be everything her father says she is and more. She now belongs to Ferdinand, but Prospero warns him that if he breaks...
(The entire section is 1314 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1, lines 164-266 Summary and Analysis
Prospero anxiously summons Ariel, informing him that they must prepare for the coming of Caliban. Ariel then discloses the latest information about the whereabouts of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. With tabor and pipe Ariel had charmed the three conspirators into following him and left them neck deep in the “filthy-mantled pool” beyond the cell. Prospero praises Ariel, instructing him to remain invisible as he gathers the former duke’s royal wardrobe to use as bait to catch the would-be murderers.
Ariel leaves promptly. Left alone, Prospero reflects on the pains he has taken to civilize Caliban. He decides it has all been in vain, considering the fact that Caliban is, after all, a “born...
(The entire section is 925 words.)
Act V, Scene 1, lines 1-87 Summary and Analysis
Act V opens with Prospero’s declaration that the final resolution of his project is at hand. Ariel informs him the time is approaching the sixth hour when Prospero had promised their work would end. Ariel apprises him of the condition of the king and his followers, reporting that they are still confined, by Prospero’s magic, to the grove of trees that acts as a windbreak to his cell. Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio are completely distraught and the rest, particularly Gonzalo, can do nothing but mourn for them. Ariel is sure Prospero would sympathize with them in their afflictions if he could see them now. Prospero concedes that if Ariel, who is only air, has even a hint of feeling for them, surely he, who is...
(The entire section is 1118 words.)
Act V, Scene 1, 88-171 Summary and Analysis
Prospero has taken off his magician’s robe so that the king and his royal party will be able to recognize him as the former Duke of Milan. After he disrobes, he promises Ariel that he will soon be free. While Ariel helps to attire Prospero in his duke’s clothing, he sings his freedom song. Identifying with the bee that gets its nectar from the flowers of the fields, he looks forward to his freedom when he will live “merrily” in the summer, making his home “under a blossom” hanging on the bough. Prospero tells him he will be missed, but he will, nevertheless, be given his freedom. Ariel is then instructed to remain invisible as he hurries to the king’s ship to bring back the master and the...
(The entire section is 1010 words.)
Act V, Scene 1, 172-255 Summary and Analysis
As Prospero pulls aside the curtain to the opening of his cave, he discloses Ferdinand and Miranda pretending to play chess but engaging in a lovers’ conversation instead. Alonso thinks they are a vision of the island, and even Sebastian sees it as a “most high miracle” that Ferdinand has at last been found. When Ferdinand sees his father alive, he realizes that the threatening sea is merciful after all. Miranda is impressed with the handsome men of the royal court who come from the “brave new world” that she and Ferdinand will soon inhabit. Prospero simply replies that all this is new to her.
Alonso then inquires about Miranda whom Ferdinand could not have known for more than three hours....
(The entire section is 974 words.)
Act V, Scene 1, Lines 256-330 Summary and Analysis
With Ariel in pursuit, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo, arrayed in Prospero’s finery, appear to the men of the royal court. Stephano, too drunk to get his words straight, calls to his partners to shift for themselves. Trinculo thinks the king and his party are “a goodly sight,” but Caliban is afraid Prospero will chastise him, though he is impressed when he sees his master in a duke’s robe.
Sebastian and Antonio immediately see Caliban as a deformed fish-like monster, a marketable product to take back to Italy. Prospero informs Alonso and his royal court that Stephano and Trinculo have robbed him, and that Caliban, the son of an evil witch, has been plotting with them to take the duke’s...
(The entire section is 984 words.)